For the Mad Fox Brewing Company’s owner and chief executive officer, Bill Madden, surviving at all in an industry where most fail in the first year is cause for celebration. But the gastropub, since opening July 12, 2010, has enjoyed a successful year serving its house-brewed beers alongside a seasonal, locally sourced and chef-inspired menu to eager patrons all right in downtown Falls Church. On Saturday, the restaurant will celebrate with entertainment for guests and a plethora of specials.
Madden, a veteran brewer and graduate of the Master Brewers Program at the University of California in Davis, has been bringing his brews to Northern Virginia since his graduation from the program in 1995, developing a following through his work at such area establishments as Capitol City Brewing Company, Founders Restaurant and Brewing Company and, most recently, at Vintage 50 Restaurant and Brew Lounge.
At Vintage 50, under the tutelage of Anthony Cavallo, Madden learned the importance of working long hours and being a fixture of one’s establishment, a quality he has tried to emulate in his transition from brewer to business owner.
Madden’s path to restaurant and brewery ownership began in June 2008, when he and his business partner, Rick Garvin, went to market to get investors. Currently more than 40 investors are part owners in Mad Fox, including several from BURP, Brewers United for Real Potables.
Madden and Garvin had previously considered their current location, a main-floor spot off of West Broad Street in the Spectrum complex, which had another interested tenant with a similar concept. Finding a home was no easy task considering the demands the brewery would place upon the space, the chiefest being the weight of the hefty brewing equipment that the floors would need to support.
Madden didn’t expect he’d find a suitable space inside the beltway, but when the leasing agreement with the previous tenant failed at the Spectrum, the landlord contacted Madden in spring 2009 to see if they were still interested, and Mad Fox was able to situate itself in Falls Church City.
According to Madden, Falls Church – with its high median income and population density, and the family friendly atmosphere fostered by its school system – was the ideal demographic.
Madden planned for Mad Fox to be a brewery and pizza spot serving European-themed fare with an American twist, heavy on the pub food, all made with local, seasonal ingredients. While Madden manned the brews menu, he needed a chef to put a gourmet touch on the food offerings.
After a Craigslist search, the applicant pool was narrowed down to a handful of chefs who showcased their skills in a cookoff at Open Kitchen, as Mad Fox did not have use of a kitchen facility at the time.
Russel Cunningham – a Texas Culinary Academy-trained Cordon Bleu chef with an interest in using local and sustainable ingredients boasting cooking credits at such local restaurants as Dupont Grille and Agraria restaurant – stood out and was picked to be Mad Fox’s executive chef. He was tasked with perfecting the menu in two months before the opening, having use of the facility’s kitchen only after the June 24 OK from the health department.
“It was a very fast and furious effort to pull together the menu,” Madden said.
Madden had planned for a soft opening, meaning that no formal advertisement or announcement of the restaurant’s debut would be made, allowing customers to find Mad Fox and slowly trickle in as staff were trained and other final details were sorted out.
Thanks to reports in the News-Press and the power of social media, however, word about Mad Fox spread, and soon local Twitter and Facebook accounts were buzzing with excitement over the soon-to-come addition to the Falls Church restaurant scene.
“There was so much pent-up demand and excitement,” Madden said. He was aware that interest had been sparked before the opening, but said that nothing could have prepared him for the crowds that gathered on Mad Fox’s opening day.
“It was packed,” Madden said. Customers lined the bar and filled the restaurant’s tables, hoping to sample the local brews and culinary treats the restaurant’s menu promised.
“The next two weeks were like an out-of-control freight train,” Madden said. “I was like walking in a dream. To see so many people walking in to enjoy it, it was fantastic.”
Local critics soon took notice of Mad Fox, and the restaurant and its staff began earning numerous accolades from the press throughout the greater Washington, D.C. region, proving that this little city restaurant could hold its own amongst the metro area’s best restaurants and breweries.
In the past year, locals have made their menu favorites known. Madden says that the pizzas – served on a fairly sturdy thin crust made with dough that is baked fresh daily and topped with fresh ingredients – and the pork belly appetizer – a piece of 12-hour-roasted Virginia pork belly glazed with molasses and honey – are top sellers. The frickles, deep-fried pickle chips, are also popular amongst customers. In fact, Madden said the restaurant can usually go through a 55-gallon drum daily of the brined cucumbers used in the dish.
As for libations, an IPA craze is sweeping the nation, and here in Falls Church, the India Pale Ales on the Mad Fox menu – like the Orange Whip, a Citra hops-brewed beer with a slightly fruity flavor – are customer favorites.
Though Mad Fox has espoused the sometimes costly philosophy of locally sourcing fresh ingredients, the restaurant still offers prices in line with what casual diners might expect to pay. Beers come in at about $7 a glass, and entree items range in price from the $8 grilled cheese panini to the $22 steak frites.
“It ain’t easy,” Madden said. “Sometimes people don’t realize the quality of the ingredients because of the price.”
With the long hours that Madden spends at the restaurant, often in seven-day work weeks, he is no stranger to the food and beverages that Mad Fox serves. He said that, being a brewer, he’ll never tire of beer, but admits that one can only eat so much pizza.
As the community has come to Mad Fox, so too has Mad Fox gone to the community. The restaurant is a frequent presence at City festivals, and recently partnered with the annual Tinner Hill Blues Festival to provide beer, a first for the outdoor music festival.
It is that relationship with the City that Madden is, in particular, grateful for.
“Falls Church City folks have been extremely receptive,” Madden said. “If you support the community, they will support you. We really appreciate that.”
While Madden declined to discuss how much Mad Fox has earned in its freshman year, he did say that the City of Falls Church has “benefited handsomely from us” through meals and other taxes.
As for the future of Mad Fox, ideas of expansion – possibly making the beer available for purchase offsite or opening new locations – aren’t currently being considered, as Madden said the restaurant is still in the process of refining its products.
Madden keeps busy with the administrative tasks associated with running the restaurant, but is still involved in making beer. The restaurant employed a full-time brewer, Charlie Buettner, so Madden does less brewing, but enjoys the times when Buettner is away so that he can hop back into the hops and return to his brewing roots.
In looking back at Mad Fox’s maiden year, there is little Madden sees that he wishes he could change.
“I’d say give me an office,” Madden said, laughing while speaking to the News-Press from his current office – a laptop resting on a corner table in the dining room.
As part of Saturday’s celebration, the restaurant will be giving away commemorative glasses, tapping two oaked favorites and a work-in-progress black ale, and offering bar snack and menu specials. The Levi Stephens Band will be performing at 9 p.m.
For more information on Mad Fox or Saturday’s anniversary celebration, visit madfoxbrewing.com.